Wed 1 Feb, 2012 11:46 am
Feb. 01, 2012
Lure of jobs draws Haitians to Brazil
Mimi Whitefield | McClatchy Newspapers
last updated: February 01, 2012 11:19:34 AM
MIAMI — Nearly 3,000 miles separate the capitals of Haiti and Brazil, but that hasn't prevented Haitians from making their way to Latin America's largest country to get work.
Some 2,400 illegal Haitians even crowded into remote western Amazon towns where they have been living in precarious conditions. Many followed a route that took them from Haiti to the Dominican Republic to Panama to Lima, then on to Iquitos, Peru, where they caught a boat to the Brazilian outposts on the banks of the Amazon River.
Now, the Brazilian National Immigration Council has begun a program to not only grant visas to Haitians who crossed Brazil's borders illegally before Jan. 13 but also to allow about 100 Haitians per month enter Brazil to work legally.
At its embassy in Port-au-Prince, Brazil plans to issue 1,200 permanent visas annually to Haitians whose lives were torn apart by the social and economic upheavals of Haiti's 2010 earthquake. Igor Kipman, Brazil's ambassador to Haiti, said the embassy usually doesn't get many visa requests from Haitians. But now, he said, there is "a window of opportunity for those who would like to live in Brazil but do not have a steady work offer."
The visa program comes at a time when Brazil has taken a special interest in Haiti.
Besides leading the largest contingent of U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti, Brazil was one of the first donors to contribute to a post-earthquake reconstruction fund. It also has made social investments, working in the Haitian slums and financing the construction of community clinics. It is currently seeking partners to help build a $150 million hydroelectric dam on the Artibonite River.
"Brazil, as an emerging power, has made Haiti one of its critical countries where it is trying to make a major difference," said Lionel Delatour, a Haiti-based consultant who has traveled to Brazil four times in the last two years to attract Brazilian garment and textiles investments to Haiti.
"It wants to show that its interests go beyond addressing the security challenges by sending troops and having a Brazilian general in charge of the U.N. peacekeeping operations. It's also playing a critical role in development in areas of agriculture, training, water and sewage," he said.
The visa program allows Haitians to remain in Brazil for five years, and does not require participants to show proof of education and labor skills nor that a job is waiting for them - unlike other Brazilian work visa programs, Paulo Sergio de Almeida, president of the National Immigration Council, said in an email.
If they want to remain in Brazil permanently, the Haitian immigrants will be required to show proof of employment before the end of the five-year period.
"We hope that Haiti will start to improve job conditions for the Haitian population. As Haiti establishes a pattern of sustainable development and economic growth, Haitians will no longer feel the need to seek out a better life abroad," said Antonio Patriota, Brazil's minister of foreign relations.
As the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro approach, Brazil has piqued the interest of workers around the world. Unemployment is at historic lows, and labor shortages have cropped up around the country.
That spurred on people smugglers who left Haitians in border towns such as Tabatinga, which perches on the Amazon River at the nexus with Peru and Colombia, and Brasileia on the frontier with Bolivia. Despite the Haitians' circuitous route, "they were definitely aiming for Brazil. They have the idea that in Brazil they will find jobs and a better life," said Alessandra Vilas Boas, director of communications for the Doctors Without Borders program in Brazil.
The humanitarian organization has been aiding the displaced Haitians who first began showing up just months after the quake.
Some have followed a portion of a well-established route that small-scale merchants take to Panama to buy cheap products. Another smuggling route takes Haitians via the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Peru, Kipman said.
The exodus comes as Haitians' frustration mounts over the plodding pace of job creation at home. They continue to take to the sea in search of better opportunities. In the first 31/2 months of the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, U.S. Coast Guard statistics show that interdictions of Haitians at sea have increased by 250 to 488 compared with the same time a year ago.
But in conjunction with the special visa program, Brazil is tightening up its borders and some Haitians attempting to enter have been turned away. Those who continue to arrive illegally will be asked to leave or may face deportation, the Brazilian government said.
In January there were about 2,400 Haitians in the border towns, which traditionally have been transit points for smuggling drugs and contraband, and Brazil is issuing humanitarian residence permits to them. Another 1,600 Haitians already have been granted amnesty.
Doctors Without Borders, the same humanitarian group that treated 358,000 patients in Haiti after the quake, said many of the Haitians have spent all or nearly all their savings on the trip to Brazil and are now in dire straits.
"They weren't receiving government assistance - neither local nor federal," Vilas Boas said in a telephone interview from Rio de Janeiro. "They were neglected and invisible when we first started to help them. They couldn't work and they couldn't leave. Now, fortunately, something is being done about their situation."
In early December, Doctors Without Borders began distributing hygiene kits and cleaning products to help the Haitians in Tabatinga keep their living quarters sanitary. Local churches and other groups also have helped by providing food.
Vilas Boas said more than 1,500 Haitians were in Tabatinga, a town of around 52,000 people, when she visited recently. They were living in "very, very poor and crowded conditions," she said.
On the Doctors Without Borders website, Renata de Oliveira Silva, the project coordinator in Tabatinga, recounted what she has seen: "I visited a house where 40 people are sharing one latrine. In another residence, there are a lot of tiny rooms, without proper light or ventilation, where up to five people have to sleep."
With the amnesty in place, Vilas Boas said the pace of processing the Haitians' work papers and interviews by the Federal Police have picked up and Haitians have begun to leave Tabatinga for better prospects.
Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.)